LIVERMORE -- A wind power provider that operates about 800 turbines in the Altamont Pass -- where thousands of birds are believed killed by them each year -- is shutting down its operations.
Altamont Winds told the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service in an email Oct. 23 that it is ceasing operations as of Sunday.
The decision was applauded by environmental groups, which for years have been fighting to build awareness around the large numbers of golden eagles, raptors, burrowing owls and other birds that are killed by turbines.
"It's a really big deal," said Michael Lynes, director of public policy for Audubon California. "(Altamont Winds) is the second-largest operator in the Altamont, and they were doggedly continuing to use those old turbines that we know have a disproportionately high rate of mortality."
Altamont Winds did not return calls for comment.
Altamont Winds Vice President Bill Damon wrote in the email to the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service that "the reduction of avian impacts" was the primary reason for the company to discontinue its Altamont operations.
The shutdown was a surprise, as Altamont had earlier this year received an extension to operate until 2018, which frustrated environmentalists.
The company is one of four that operate in the Altamont Pass Wind Farm, which was one of the first wind farms in the country when commissioned in the early 1980s and currently has about 3,000 turbines.
The farm for years has been controversial because of the resulting bird deaths.
Alameda County surveys have estimated annual bird deaths at about 4,500, and some biologists have speculated that the number could be closer to 10,000.
Wind power companies have suggested that some of those deaths could be from predators or other causes.
Environmentalists have been particularly concerned about deaths of golden eagles, which are a protected species.
In 2004, a handful of conservation groups sued Alameda County, demanding that the county provide environmental assessments before renewing permits for wind operators.
According to Lynes, a settlement agreement was hammered out in 2006, but Altamont Winds backed out at the last minute, an eleventh-hour maneuver that sparked the ire of conservationists.
"They got all the benefits, but they weren't under the restrictions," Lynes said.
The major issue was "repowering," which refers to reducing the number of turbines by replacing older one with much stronger ones. The strategy led to about a 35 percent decrease in bird deaths between 2006 and 2010, according to Lynes.
Judy Holzworth, the regional communications director for U.S. Fish and Wildlife, said her agency was happy to hear the news.
"We're not against wind energy; we just want to ensure that it's done in a way that protects wildlife," she said.